The life of Judith Sailesi, 14, of Bangwe Township in Blantyre, took a nose drive the day she was involved in a road accident along the Zalewa Road six years ago.
Not only did she lose her mother. For many months, Judith lost her sight and had hearing difficulties, while her spine took a knock making it difficult for her to walk. It took months of physiotherapy for her walking to return to normal.
In the same accident, six other lives were lost while over 15 sustained various injuries when vegetable sellers boarded a truck that had carried timber.
“I still have back pains and I experience walking difficulties once in a while. I do not know how the accident happened because I was young then. But what I know is that the truck was not supposed to carry passengers as it was already loaded with timber,” explains the Form One student.
November 15 was World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, but Malawi will commemorate the continent’s version, the Africa Road Safety Day, on November 29. The day was set aside by the African Union and the United Nations for Africa to reflect on the severe road safety situation in African countries.
Spokesperson for Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS), Chisomo Chibwana, says the day will be commemorated at an event in Blantyre with the focus on passenger safety.
The kind of accident that Judith was involved in represents a big fraction of accidents caused through the disregard of road safety regulations, in a country where formal passenger transport is a big problem, particularly in rural areas where over 70 percent of the population are domiciled.
Statistics indicate that Malawi remains one of the countries whose roads are very risky. In 2014 alone, 2 637 people perished on the roads in over 5 000 accidents that took place, raising questions whether the country is making progress in a bid to reduce road traffic accidents.
Just like Judith, many road accident victims in the country are living a life of regret and neglect after being left with scars of physical challenges and frustration.
“If my mother were alive, I know my future would have been brighter. I struggle to get school fees now,” explains Judith amid sobs.
Many accidents have been blamed on unroadworthy vehicles, careless driving and poor state of the country’s roads, among other factors.
While DRTSS ensures that the roads are safe by delegating traffic police to patrol them, cases of careless driving are still rampant.
National Police deputy spokesperson Nicholas Gondwa parries questions to traffic police’s alleged failure to instil discipline on the country’s roads which continues to be dangerous.
“As the police, through our road traffic, we have an obligation to conduct random checks on the roads where we control traffic and check road permits including validity of drivers’ licences. These road patrols help to reduce accidents as we employ other measures such as speed traps and breathalysers,” he explains.
Gondwa says the police service is trying to be proactive by conducting civic education on how to prevent road accidents through community policing initiatives.
He adds that the positioning of the police on certain roads is research-driven as they target roads that are busy and frequently experience accidents.
While many people in the country still use unauthorised vehicles to move from one place to another, Chibwana says the rules barring the carrying of people in heavy goods vehicles still stands.
“This is a very big issue considering that the country does not have enough passenger vehicles. However, there is no law that allows people to be carried in open trucks. We do not even allow institutions like schools to use such vehicles on their trips. It is simply illegal,” she observes.
Chibwana states that in exceptional cases such as funerals, people might be allowed to use trucks to carry passengers.
“Even that does not mean the law allows it. What we advise is that they should first go to police to seek authorisation where the vehicle is inspected and guidelines are given on its capacity. Passengers have to have an obligation to ensure that their lives are safe when travelling by being in control over the vehicle they want to use,” Chibwana adds.
She notes that the country has had problems in the past with the way drivers’ licences were being issued.
“The past systems were very porous hence the increase of accidents in the country. No wonder even some qualified drivers are now finding it difficult to pass tests in the newly introduced MalTIS [Malawi Traffic Information System]. Soon around January 2016 we will be going into the second phase of the system. But we are also working with other stakeholders such as the ACB [Anti-Corruption Bureau] to ensure that there is no corruption in the sector,” Chibwana says.
Africa has a high rate of road traffic accidents in which the majority of the victims are vulnerable road users between the ages of 15 and 59 years.
The Africa Road Safety Day was launched on 18 November 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as a day on which countries on the continent have to take time to reflect on road safety issues and how road traffic accidents are affecting Africa.
In struggling to walk to school, Judith wishes for the day Malawi’s road accident record will depreciate.
“I am an orphan because of road accidents. I wish things would change for the better as soon as possible. Otherwise many people will continue to die and get injured,” she observes.
The DRTSS has a constitutional mandate that includes certifying vehicle fitness as well as driver competence through issuance of driving licences after applicants have passed driving tests. n